Saturday, December 19, 2009

The iPhone User Review

On July 11, 2008, I was one of the people making a beeline at the O2 shop to get S her new phone - the iPhone 3G. S was reluctant at first, she's had no use for phones which do a lot more than just allow you to talk, but she quickly came around. It is hard to ignore a thing like the iPhone, it's crafted so well that it is almost a work of art.

I loved the phone for its minimalistic design. I loved the seamlessness with which the phone curved together to meet the flat screen. There were no hard keys to press on the front face, nor many buttons at the sides (think reset, push to talk, voice activation etc). Still, for all its looks, the phone looked like a watered down version of my Xda Orbit on paper. At the time we bought the iPhone 3G, the Orbit
  • could cut/copy/paste (which means I need not type the whole message again).
  • could forward text and multimedia messages (which means I did not have to think of cut/copy/paste in the messaging space).
  • could send a business card.
  • had a device-independent mini USB Type B connector (which means I could charge my phone through any USB cable).
  • could recognise my handwriting.
  • had expandable micro-SD memory.
  • could suggest names if I punched the numbers on the dial.

All of which the iPhone could not do. In a way, S got the phone she wanted. And once I started playing with it, I started to appreciate the phone more.

A key thing which landed up in the ayes for iPhone was its ability to render multiple pages in Safari. Sure, I used to browse the net on my Orbit, but it was always a columnar display of text which kept on rearranging itself as it retrieved packets from the cloud. Even with the optimised settings for mobile screens, it would invariably come up with two-way scroll bars making navigation a less than satisfying experience. Moreover, there was only one window. With Safari, the iPhone scored twice; one, it had the ability to bring multiple screens, two, it renders the actual site itself and not a WAP site which used to be the case with Orbit.

The user interface design is another thing about the iPhone which I liked. Double tapping a block of text fits it to the screen. Just tilting the iPhone auto-orients its text, so you can type and read in widescreen. The best use of this can be seen in the Calculator, where it offers you a scientific calculator by just turning the device on its side. Tell me a simpler way of doing it. However, a common grouse with the auto-orientation is that when you're lying on your bed, and you turn to your side, only to find the screen has spun around by 90 degrees.

I went great lengths trying to configure my email on my Orbit. I tried Gmail, but it would not go beyond downloading the headers. I tried to configure my primary work email, but it failed for not having a security certificate. Curious to explore more, I tried to configure my secondary work email, and was successful. Only later did I realise that the secondary email had enforced a security option which now required me to put a PIN every time I opened the phone. After registering into a dozen forums, poring over hundreds of posts and downloading freeware to blast through the PIN-gate, I realised that the only sure cure was a hard-reset of the phone. Compared to this, configuring my work email and Gmail on the iPhone was a cakewalk. So every morning, even before getting off the bed, I would roll over to S's side of the bed to grab her phone and check my email (A habit I'm trying hard to break now).

The most important thing that worked in iPhone's favour, was Apps. It is not without reason that they say they've got an app for almost everything. In the first few weeks, I downloaded an app called Shazam. I did not quite know how it worked, but there I was in a friend's car and there was a great song on the radio. I turned on Shazam, it analysed the song for about a minute, and offered me the Youtube video of the song. And we sat there with a silly smile on the face. The very fact that you could search by audio input left us feeling dazed. This was something the Orbit could not do. I would like to talk about Mover, Bump, Evernote etc, but the apps merit a post themselves.

A few months ago, when Apple brought in much needed fixes in the 3.0 upgrade, it solved most of my problems with the iPhone. Although I could not send business cards and still have the charger handy, I am now able to copy URLs and note items into emails, which more or less serves my purpose. But, a major peeve was that the iPhone refused to work when I took it to India. Now, I understand it is locked to O2, who is the sole carrier for iPhone here in the UK, but I also thought it would support a SIM from Airtel, who is the sole carrier for iPhone in India. When I came back, I asked around and to my horror, I was told that O2 would NOT unlock the iPhone even after I fulfil my contract of 18 months. That, to me, was fleecing in broad daylight.

That inexplicable decision seems to have been reversed now, with Orange coming in as the second carrier for the iPhone, O2 are now unlocking the iPhone for free (for Pay Monthly customers, a small fee for Pay & Go customers). Here is the official O2 link.

That's a step in the right direction, especially as S's contract runs out this January.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Fundamental Question

A welcome break in the daily routine was when a colleague booked his flat in Pune. For a long time, he was looking out for a flat, and now when he did get one, it was a nice change to look at floor-plans, work out carpet area, saleable area etc. Getting a flat you like and within your budget is almost next to impossible in Pune nowadays. Time and again, friends keep giving me pointers about the going rate, a suitable builder, or even interest calculations, but I have never seriously considered buying a house.

I love the house we live in now. It's a rented one bedroom apartment, fully furnished, and very close to work. When I moved in, I moved in with only my suitcase. It was a little more than what I had come with to the UK, three years ago. In fact, if you really think about it, it was not very different from what I had brought to Pune, five years ago (not taking into account the size of the clothes, but you get the drift).

So, it makes me wonder when S sees something she REALLY likes and buys it 'for "our" house'. She is all too keen to get it up and running. She already has mental maps of how our house should be, she wants to paint her own walls and arrange her furniture. She's bought vases and candle-stands which have found their places in our would-be house. And although I see her point, I still remain unconvinced to take the plunge.

May be it is the traveller in me who has taken to heart that little notice on trains - 'Less Luggage, More Comfort'.
May be it is the fact that even if you snap a finger and magically have the most likeable apartment available for sale, I might not have the money to commit myself to it.
May be it is because it constrains me by limiting my options.

Consider this. We stay in Milton Keynes, but S's job search is not limited to MK alone. This is because we have the flexibility of moving anywhere within an hour's drive of MK. All we would have to do is to search a fully furnished house on rent, and drive down with our luggage in the back of the car.

On the other hand, the first thing I have to decide when I think to moving back to India is to decide "where". Should I move back to Pune, live in a rented flat, paying the equivalent of two months rent as brokerage every year? Should I move back to Bangalore and spend half of a working day travelling to work?

My argument is that buying a house is probably the single largest investment we make in our life. It tethers us to the place we choose, dramatically reprioritising career options, healthcare, schooling, what not! And we are better off doing it when we know the answer to the fundamental question - Where?